In the days when Henry the Fourth of France was as yet King of Navarre only, and in that little kingdom of hills and woods which occupies the south-western corner of the larger country, was with difficulty supporting the Huguenot cause against the French court and the Catholic League--in the days when every little moated town, from the Dordogne to the Pyrenees, was a bone of contention between the young king and the crafty queen-mother, Catherine de Medicis, a conference between these warring personages took place in the picturesque town of La Réole. And great was the fame of it.
La Réole still rises grey, time-worn, and half-ruined on a lofty cliff above the broad green waters of the Garonne, forty odd miles from Bordeaux. It is a small place now, but in the days of which we are speaking it was important, strongly fortified, and guarded by a castle which looked down on some hundreds of red-tiled roofs, rising in terraces from the river. As the meeting-place of the two sovereigns it was for the time as gay as Paris itself. Catherine had brought with her a bevy of fair maids of honour, and trusted more perhaps in the effect of their charms than in her own diplomacy. But the peaceful appearance of the town was as delusive as the smooth bosom of the Gironde; for even while every other house in its streets rang with music and silvery laughter, each party was ready to fly to arms at a word if it saw that any advantage could be gained thereby.
On an evening shortly before the end of the conference two men were seated at play in a room, the deep-embrasured window of which looked down from a considerable height upon the river. The hour was late; below them the town lay silent. Outside, the moonlight fell bright and pure on sleeping fields, on vineyards, and dark far-spreading woods. Within the room a silver lamp suspended from the ceiling threw light upon the table, but left the farther parts of the chamber in shadow. The walls were hung with faded tapestry, and on a low bedstead in one corner lay a handsome cloak, a sword, and one of the clumsy pistols of the period. Across a high-backed chair lay another cloak and sword, and on the window seat, beside a pair of saddle-bags, were strewn half a dozen trifles such as soldiers carried from camp to camp--a silver comfit-box, a jewelled dagger, a mask, a velvet cap.
The faces of the players, as they bent over the cards, were in shadow. One--a slight, dark man of middle height, with a weak chin--and a mouth that would have equally betrayed its weakness had it not been shaded by a dark moustache--seemed, from the occasional oaths which he let drop, to be losing heavily. Yet his opponent, a stouter and darker man, with a sword-cut across his left temple, and the swaggering air that has at all times marked the professional soldier, showed no signs of triumph or elation. On the contrary, though he kept silence, or spoke only a formal word or two, there was a gleam of anxiety and suppressed excitement in his eyes; and more than once he looked keenly at his companion, as if to judge of his feelings or to learn whether the time had come for some experiment which he meditated. But for this, an observer looking in through the window would have taken the two for that common conjunction--the hawk and the pigeon.
At last the younger player threw down his cards with an exclamation.
"You have the luck of the evil one," he said, bitterly. "How much is that?"
"Two thousand crowns," the other replied without emotion. "You will play no more?"
"No! I wish to heaven I had never played at all!" was the answer. As he spoke the loser rose, and moving to the window stood looking out. For a few moments the elder man remained in his seat, gazing furtively at him; at length he too rose, and, stepping softly to his companion, he touched him on the shoulder. "Your pardon a moment, M. le Vicomte," he said. "Am I right in concluding that the loss of this sum will inconvenience you?"
"A thousand fiends!" the young gamester exclaimed, turning on him wrathfully. "Is there any man whom the loss of two thousand crowns would not inconvenience? As for me----"
"For you," the other continued smoothly, filling up the pause, "shall I be wrong in supposing that it means something like ruin?"
"Well, sir, and if it does?" the young man retorted; and he drew himself up, his cheek a shade paler with passion. "Depend upon it you shall be paid. Do not be afraid of that!"
"Gently, gently, my friend," the winner answered, his patience in strong contrast to the other's violence. "I had no intention of insulting you, believe me. Those who play with the Vicomte de Noirterre are not wont to doubt his honour. I spoke only in your own interest. It has occurred to me, Vicomte, that the matter may be arranged at less cost to yourself."
"How?" was the curt question.
"May I speak freely?" The Vicomte shrugged his shoulders, and the other, taking silence for consent, proceeded: "You, Vicomte, are governor of Lusigny for the King of Navarre; I, of Créance, for the King of France. Our towns lie but three leagues apart. Could I by any chance, say on one of these fine nights, make myself master of Lusigny, it would be worth more than two thousand crowns to me. Do you understand?"
"No," the young man answered slowly, "I do not."
"Think over what I have said, then," was the brief answer.
For a full minute there was silence in the room. The Vicomte gazed from the window with knitted brows and compressed lips, while his companion, seated near at hand, leant back in his chair, with an air of affected carefulness. Outside, the rattle of arms and hum of voices told that the watch were passing through the street. The church bell rang one o'clock. Suddenly the Vicomte burst into a forced laugh, and, turning, took up his cloak and sword. "The trap was well laid, M. le Capitaine," he said almost jovially; "but I am still sober enough to take care of myself--and of Lusigny. I wish you good night. You shall have your money, do not fear."
"Still, I am afraid it will cost you dearly," the Captain answered, as he rose and moved towards the door to open it for his guest. And then, when his hand was already on the latch, he paused. "My lord," he said, "what do you say to this, then? I will stake the two thousand crowns you have lost to me, and another thousand to boot--against your town. Oh, no one can hear us. If you win you go off a free man with my thousand. If you lose, you put me in possession--one of these fine nights. Now, that is an offer. What do you say to it? A single game to decide."
The younger man's face reddened. He turned; his eyes sought the table and the cards; he stood irresolute. The temptation came at an unfortunate moment; a moment when the excitement of play had given way to depression, and he saw nothing outside the door, on the latch of which his hand was laid, but the bleak reality of ruin. The temptation to return, the thought that by a single hand he might set himself right with the world, was too much for him. Slowly--he came back to the table. "Confound you!" he said passionately. "I think you are the devil himself!"
"Don't talk child's talk!" the other answered coldly, drawing back as his victim advanced. "If you do not like the offer you need not take it."
But the young man was a born gambler, and his fingers had already closed on the cards. Picking them up idly he dropped them once, twice, thrice on the table, his eyes gleaming with the play-fever. "If I win?" he said doubtfully. "What then? Let us have it quite clearly."
"You carry away a thousand crowns," the Captain answered quietly. "If you lose you contrive to leave one of the gates of Lusigny open for me before next full moon. That is all."
"And what if I lose, and do not pay the forfeit?" the Vicomte asked, laughing weakly.
"I trust to your honour," the Captain answered. And, strange as it may seem, he knew his man. The young noble of the day might betray his cause and his trust, but the debt of honour incurred at play was binding on him.
"Well," said the Vicomte, with a deep breath, "I agree. Who is to deal?"
"As you will," the Captain replied, masking under an appearance of indifference the excitement which darkened his cheek, and caused the pulse in the old wound on his face to beat furiously.
"Then do you deal," said the Vicomte.
"With your permission," the Captain assented. And gathering the cards he dealt them with a practised hand, and pushed his opponent's six across to him.
The young man took up the hand and, as he sorted it, and looked from it to his companion's face, he repressed a groan with difficulty. The moonlight shining through the casement fell in silvery sheen on a few feet of the floor. With the light something of the silence and coolness of the night entered also, and appealed to him. For a few seconds he hesitated. He made even as if he would have replaced the hand on the table. But he had gone too far to retrace his steps with honour. It was too late, and with a muttered word, which his dry lips refused to articulate, he played the first card.
He took that trick and the next: they were secure.
"And now," said the Captain, who knew well where the pinch came. "What next?"
The Vicomte compressed his lips. Two courses were open to him. By adopting one he could almost for certain win one more trick: by the other he might just possibly win two tricks. He was a gamester; he adopted the latter course. In half a minute it was over. He had lost!
The winner nodded gravely. "The luck is with me still," he said, keeping his eyes on the table that the light of triumph which had leapt into them might not be seen. "When do you go back to your command, Vicomte?"
The unhappy man sat, as one stunned, his eyes on the painted cards which had cost him so dearly. "The day after to-morrow," he muttered at last, striving to collect himself.
"Then shall we say--the following evening?" the Captain asked courteously.
The young man shivered. "As you will," he muttered.
"We quite understand one another," continued the winner, eyeing his man watchfully, and speaking with more urgency. "I may depend on you, M. le Vicomte, I presume--to keep your word?"
"The Noirterres have never been wanting to their word," the young nobleman answered stung into passing passion. "If I live I will put Lusigny into your hands, M. le Capitaine. Afterwards I will do my best to recover it--in another way."
"I shall be most happy to meet you in that way," replied the Captain, bowing lightly. And in one more minute, the door of his lodging had closed on the other; and he was alone--alone with his triumph, his ambition, his hopes for the future--alone with the greatness to which his capture of Lusigny was to be the first step. He would enjoy that greatness not a whit the less because fortune had hitherto dealt out to him more blows than caresses, and he was still at forty, after a score of years of roughest service, the governor of a paltry country town.
Meanwhile, in the darkness of the narrow streets, the Vicomte was making his way to his lodgings in a state of despair difficult to describe, impossible to exaggerate. Chilled, sobered, and affrighted he looked back and saw how he had thrown for all and lost all, how he had saved the dregs of his fortune at the expense of his loyalty, how he had seen a way of escape--and lost it for ever! No wonder that as he trudged through the mud and darkness of the sleeping town his breath came quickly and his chest heaved, and he looked from side to side as a hunted animal might look, uttering great sighs. Ah, if he could have retraced the last three hours! If he could have undone that he had done!
In a fever, he entered his lodging, and securing the door behind him stumbled up the stone stairs and entered his room. The impulse to confide his misfortunes to some one was so strong upon him that he was glad to see a dark form half sitting, half lying in a chair before the dying embers of a wood fire. In those days a man's natural confidant was his valet, the follower, half friend, half servant, who had been born on his estate, who lay on a pallet at the foot of his bed, who carried his billets-doux and held his cloak at the duello, who rode near his stirrup in fight and nursed him in illness, who not seldom advised him in the choice of a wife, and lied in support of his suit.
The young Vicomte flung his cloak over a chair. "Get up, you rascal!" he cried impatiently. "You pig, you dog!" he continued, with increasing anger. "Sleeping there as though your master were not ruined by that scoundrel of a Breton! Bah!" he added, gazing bitterly at his follower, "you are of the canaille, and have neither honour to lose nor a town to betray!"
The sleeping man moved in his chair but did not awake. The Vicomte, his patience exhausted, snatched the bonnet from his head, and threw it on the ground. "Will you listen?" he said. "Or go, if you choose look for another master. I am ruined! Do you hear? Ruined, Gil! I have lost all--money, land, Lusigny itself--at the cards!"
The man, roused at last, stooped with a sleepy movement, and picking up his hat dusted it with his hand, then rose with a yawn to his feet.
"I am afraid, Vicomte," he said, in tones that, quiet as they were, sounded like thunder in the young man's astonished and bewildered ears, "I am afraid that if you have lost Lusigny--you have lost something which was not yours to lose!"
As he spoke he struck the embers with his boot, and the fire, blazing up, shone on his face. The Vicomte saw, with stupor, that the man before him was not Gil at all--was indeed the last person in the world to whom he should have betrayed himself. The astute smiling eyes, the aquiline nose, the high forehead, and projecting chin, which the short beard and moustache scarcely concealed, were only too well known to him. He stepped back with a cry of despair. "Sir!" he said, and then his tongue failed him. His arms dropped by his sides. He stood silent, pale, convicted, his chin on his breast. The man to whom he had confessed his treachery was the master whom he had agreed to betray.
"I had suspected something of this," Henry of Navarre continued, after a lengthy pause, and with a tinge of irony in his tone. "Rosny told me that that old fox, the Captain of Créance, was affecting your company somewhat too much, M. le Vicomte, and I find that, as usual, his suspicions were well-founded. What with a gentleman who shall be nameless, who has bartered a ford and a castle for the favour of Mademoiselle de Luynes, and yourself, and another I know of--I am blest with some faithful followers, it seems! For shame! for shame, sir!" he continued seating himself with dignity in the chair from which he had risen, but turning it so that he confronted his host, "have you nothing to say for yourself?"
The young noble stood with bowed head, his face white. This was ruin, indeed, absolute, irremediable ruin. "Sir," he said at last, "your Majesty has a right to my life, not to my honour."
"Your honour!" Henry exclaimed, biting contempt in his tone.
The young man started, and for a second his cheek flamed under the well-deserved reproach; but he recovered himself. "My debt to your Majesty," he said, "I am willing to pay."
"Since pay you must," Henry muttered softly.
"But I claim to pay also my debt to the Captain of Créance."
The King of Navarre stared. "Oh," he said. "So you would have me take your worthless life, and give up Lusigny?"
"I am in your hands, sire."
"Pish, sir!" Henry replied in angry astonishment. "You talk like a child. Such an offer, M. de Noirterre, is folly, and you know it. Now listen to me. It was lucky for you that I came in to-night, intending to question you. Your madness is known to me only, and I am willing to overlook it. Do you hear? I am willing to pardon. Cheer up, therefore, and be a man. You are young; I forgive you. This shall be between you and me only," the young prince continued, his eyes softening as the other's head sank lower, "and you need think no more of it until the day when I shall say to you, 'Now, M. de Noirterre, for Navarre and for Henry, strike!'"
He rose as the last words passed his lips, and held out his hand. The Vicomte fell on one knee, and kissed it reverently, then sprang to his feet again. "Sire," he said, his eyes shining, "you have punished me heavily, more heavily than was needful. There is only one way in which I can show my gratitude, and that is by ridding you of a servant who can never again look your enemies in the face."
"What new folly is this?" Henry asked sternly. "Do you not understand that I have forgiven you?"
"Therefore I cannot betray Lusigny, and I must acquit myself of my debt to the Captain of Créance in the only way which remains," the young man replied firmly. "Death is not so hard that I would not meet it twice over rather than again betray my trust."
"This is midsummer madness!" said the King, hotly.
"Possibly," replied the Vicomte, without emotion; "yet of a kind to which your Grace is not altogether a stranger."
The words appealed to that love of the fanciful and the chivalrous which formed part of the young King's nature, and was one cause alike of his weakness and his strength. In its more extravagant flights it gave opportunity after opportunity to his enemies, in its nobler and saner expressions it won victories which all his astuteness and diplomacy could not have compassed. He stood now, looking with half-hidden admiration at the man whom two minutes before he had despised.
"I think you are in jest," he said presently and with some scorn.
"No, sir," the young man answered, gravely. "In my country they have a proverb about us. 'The Noirterres,' say they, 'have ever been bad players but good payers.' I will not be the first to be worse than my name!"
He spoke with so quiet a determination that the King was staggered, and for a minute or two paced the room in silence, inwardly reviling the obstinacy of this weak-kneed supporter, yet unable to withhold his admiration from it. At length he stopped, with a low exclamation.
"Wait!" he cried. "I have it! Ventre Saint Gris, man, I have it!" His eyes sparkled, and, with a gentle laugh, he hit the table a sounding blow. "Ha! ha! I have it!" he repeated gaily.
The young noble gazed at him in surprise, half suspicious, half incredulous. But when Henry in low, rapid tones had expounded his plan, the young man's face underwent a change. Hope and life sprang into it. The blood flew to his cheeks. His whole aspect softened. In a moment he was on his knee, mumbling the prince's hand, his eyes moist with gratitude. Nor was that all; the two talked long, the murmur of their voices broken more than once by the ripple of laughter. When they at length separated, and Henry, his face hidden by the folds of his cloak, had stolen to his lodgings, where, no doubt, more than one watcher was awaiting him with a mind full of anxious fears, the Vicomte threw open his window and looked out on the night. The moon had set, but the stars still shone peacefully in the dark canopy above. He remembered, his throat choking with silent emotion, that he was looking towards his home--the round towers among the walnut woods of Navarre which had been in his family since the days of St. Louis, and which he had so lightly risked. And he registered a vow in his heart that of all Henry's servants he would henceforth be the most faithful.
Meanwhile the Captain of Créance was enjoying the sweets of his coming triumph. He did not look out into the night, it is true--he was over old for sentiment--but pacing up and down the room he planned and calculated, considering how he might make the most of his success. He was still comparatively young. He had years of strength before him. He would rise high and higher. He would not easily be satisfied. The times were troubled, opportunities were many, fools not few; bold men with brains and hands were rare.
At the same time he knew that he could be sure of nothing until Lusigny was actually in his possession; and he spent the next few days in painful suspense. But no hitch occurred nor seemed likely. The Vicomte made him the necessary communications; and men in his own pay informed him of dispositions ordered by the governor of Lusigny which left him in no doubt that the loser intended to pay his debt.
It was, therefore, with a heart already gay with anticipation that the Captain rode out of Créance two hours before midnight on an evening eight days later. The night was dark, but he knew his road well. He had with him a powerful force, composed in part of thirty of his own garrison, bold hardy fellows, and in part of six score horsemen, lent him by the governor of Montauban. As the Vicomte had undertaken to withdraw, under some pretence or other, one-half of his command and to have one of the gates opened by a trusty hand, the Captain foresaw no difficulty. He trotted along in excellent spirits, now stopping to scan with approval the dark line of his troopers, now to bid them muffle the jingle of their swords and corselets that nevertheless rang sweet music in his ears. He looked for an easy victory; but it was not any slight misadventure that would rob him of his prey. If necessary he would fight and fight hard. Still, as his company wound along the river-side or passed into the black shadow of the oak grove, which stands a mile to the east of Lusigny, he did not expect that there would be much fighting.
Treachery alone, he thought, could thwart him; and of treachery there was no sign. The troopers had scarcely halted under the last clump of trees before a figure detached itself from one of the largest trunks, and advanced to the Captain's rein. The Captain saw with surprise that it was the Vicomte himself. For a second he thought that something had gone wrong, but the young noble's first words reassured him. "It is arranged," M. de Noirterre whispered, as the Captain bent down to him. "I have kept my word, and I think that there will be no resistance. The planks for crossing the moat lie opposite the gate. Knock thrice at the latter, and it will be opened. There are not fifty armed men in the place."
"Good!" the Captain answered, in the same cautious tone. "But you----"
"I am believed to be elsewhere, and must be gone. I have far to ride to night. Farewell."
"Till we meet again," the Captain answered; and without more he saw his ally glide away and disappear in the darkness. A cautious word set the troop in motion, and a very few minutes saw them standing on the edge of the moat, the outline of the gateway tower looming above them, a shade darker than the wrack of clouds which overhead raced silently across the sky. A moment of suspense while one and another shivered--for there is that in a night attack which touches the nerves of the stoutest--and the planks were found, and as quietly as possible laid across the moat. This was so skilfully done that it evoked no challenge and the Captain crossing quickly with a few picked men, stood in the twinkling of an eye under the shadow of the gateway. Still no sound was heard save the hurried breathing of those at his elbow, the stealthy tread of others crossing, the persistent voices of the frogs in the water beneath. Cautiously he knocked three times and waited. The third rap had scarcely sounded before the gate rolled silently open, and he sprang in, followed by his men.
So far so good. A glance at the empty street and the porter's pale face told him at once that the Vicomte had kept his word. But he was too old a soldier to take anything for granted, and forming up his men as quickly as they entered, he allowed no one to advance until all were inside, and then, his trumpet sounding a wild note of defiance, two-thirds of his force sprang forward in a compact body while the other third remained to hold the gate. In a moment the town awoke to find itself in the hands of the enemy.
As the Vicomte had promised, there was no resistance. In the small keep a score of men did indeed run to arms, but only to lay their weapons down without striking a blow when they became aware of the force opposed to them. Their leader, sullenly acquiescing, gave up his sword and the keys of the town to the victorious Captain; who, as he sat his horse in the middle of the marketplace, giving his orders and sending off riders with the news, already saw himself in fancy Governor of Angoulême and Knight of the Holy Ghost.
As the red light of the torches fell on steel caps and polished hauberks, on the serried ranks of pikemen, and the circle of whitefaced townsfolks, the picturesque old square looked doubly picturesque and he who sat in the midst, its master, doubly a hero. Every five minutes, with a clatter of iron on the rough pavement and a shower of sparks, a horseman sprang away to tell the news at Montauban or Cahors; and every time that this occurred, the Captain, astride on his charger, felt a new sense of power and triumph.
Suddenly the low murmur of voices about him was broken by a new sound, the distant beat of hoofs, not departing but arriving, and coming each moment nearer. It was but the tramp of a single horse, but there was something in the sound which made the Captain prick his ears, and secured for the arriving messenger a speedy passage through the crowd. Even at the last the man did not spare his horse, but spurred through the ranks to the Captain's very side, and then and then only sprang to the ground. His face was pale, his eyes were bloodshot. His right arm was bound up in bloodstained cloths. With an oath of amazement, the Captain recognized the officer whom he had left in charge of Créance, and he thundered, "What is this? What is it?"
"They have got Créance!" the man gasped, reeling as he spoke. "They have got--Créance!"
"Who?" the Captain shrieked, his face purple with rage.
"The little man of Béarn! The King of Navarre! He assaulted it five hundred strong an hour after you left, and had the gate down before we could fire a dozen shots. We did what we could, but we were but one to seven. I swear, Captain, that we did all we could. Look at this!"
Almost black in the face, the Captain swore another oath. It was not only that he saw governorship and honours vanish like Will-o'-the-wisps, but that he saw even more quickly that he had made himself the laughing-stock of a kingdom! And that was the truth. To this day, among the stories which the southern French love to tell of the prowess and astuteness of their great Henry, there is no tradition more frequently told, none more frequently made the subject of mirth, than that of the famous exchange of Créance for Lusigny; of the move by which between dawn and sunrise, without warning, without a word, he gave his opponents mate.